A few months ago, I was at the Camden Pop!Tech conference, and the guy sitting next to me was typing incessantly into his wireless laptop, making notes on the speakers, finding relevant links and then hitting the send key-instantly updating his Web site. No sooner did he do so than he would get responses back from readers around the country. He was a blogger.
Bloggers are turning the hunting and gathering, sampling and critiquing the rest of us do online into an extreme sport. We surf the Web; these guys snowboard it. Bloggers are the minutemen of the digital revolution.
“Blog” is short for “Web log.” Several years ago, heavy Web surfers began creating logs-compendia of curious information and interesting links they encountered in their travels through cyberspace. Improvements in Web design tools have made it easier for beginners to create their own Web logs and update them as often as they wish-even every five minutes, as this guy was doing. Blogs are thus more dynamic than older-style home pages, more permanent than posts to a Net discussion list. They are more private and personal than traditional journalism, more public than diaries.
Blogger.com, one of several sites at the heart of this phenomenon, now lists more than 375,000 registered users, adding 1,300 more each day. Users range broadly-from churches that have found blogging an effective tool for tending to their congregations’ spiritual needs to activists who see blogging as a means of fostering political awareness, and fans who use blogs to interact with other enthusiasts. Most often, bloggers recount everyday experiences, flag interesting stories from online publications and exchange advice on familiar problems. Their sites go by colorful names like Objectionable Content, the Adventures of the AccordionGuy in the 21st Century, or Eurotrash, which might leave you thinking that these are simply a bunch of obsessed adolescents with too much time and bandwidth.
Yet something more important may be afoot. At a time when many dot coms have failed, blogging is on the rise. We’re in a lull between waves of commercialization in digital media, and bloggers are seizing the moment, potentially increasing cultural diversity and lowering barriers to cultural participation.
What will happen to democracy in the current media environment, where power is concentrated in the hands of a few publishers and networks? Media scholar Robert McChesney warns that the range of voices in policy debates will become constrained. The University of Chicago Law School’s Cass Sunstein worries that fragmentation of the Web is apt to result in the loss of the shared values and common culture that democracy requires. As consumers, we experience these dual tensions: turn on the TV and it feels like the same programs are on all the channels; turn to the Web and it’s impossible to distinguish the good stuff from the noise. Bloggers respond to both extremes, expanding the range of perspectives and, if they’re clever, creating order from the informational chaos.
At the risk of egotism on my part, let’s imagine what happens when bloggers get hold of the online version of “Digital Renaissance.” Some may post links to the column calling me a pretentious ass. Others, if I am lucky, may feel that I have some interesting insights. My arguments for grass-roots media may be taken up by conservative and progressive sites alike but framed differently depending on the bloggers’ own ideological agendas. Once this column appears, my authorial control ends and theirs begins. As these words move through various contexts, they assume new associations and face direct challenges, but they also gain broader circulation.
Ultimately, our media future could depend on the kind of uneasy truce that gets brokered between commercial media and these grass-roots intermediaries. Imagine a world where there are two kinds of media power: one comes through media concentration, where any message gains authority simply by being broadcast on network television; the other comes through grass-roots intermediaries, where a message gains visibility only if it is deemed relevant to a loose network of diverse publics. Broadcasting will place issues on the national agenda and define core values; bloggers will reframe those issues for different publics and ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard.
It may seem strange to imagine the blogging community as a force that will shape the information environment almost as powerfully as corporate media. We learn in the history books about Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph but not about the thousands of operators who shaped the circulation of messages, about Thomas Paine’s Common Sense but less about the “committees of correspondence” through which citizens copied and redistributed letters across the colonies, about the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist blockbuster Uncle Tom’s Cabin but not about the teenagers who used toy printing presses to publish nationally circulated newsletters debating the pros and cons of slavery. In practice, the evolution of most media has been shaped through the interactions between the distributed power of grass-roots participatory media and the concentrated power of corporate/governmental media.
As the digital revolution enters a new phase, one based on diminished expectations and dwindling corporate investment, grass-roots intermediaries may have a moment to redefine the public perception of new media and to expand their influence.
So blog this, please.